Give yourself a break, teens: Look in the mirror to see your own worst critic
I was far different than anyone else at my school when I moved from Stillwater to Woodbury in 4th grade.
Stillwater and Woodbury are both suburban towns with little ethnic diversity. However, when I went to school in Stillwater, my classmates were too young to notice differences between themselves and their peers.
I arrived in Woodbury at the age when people noticed differences and began making friends who were similar to them. I didn’t follow their religion. I ate food that “smelled weird.” My two front teeth seemed to be at least a mile away from each other.
And I had a confused sense of humor: When my teacher talked about guerilla warfare, I heard gorilla warfare. I giggled until my teacher gave me one of those looks.
I also didn’t dress or work the way other girls did. While they wore Abercrombie & Fitch stitched across their chests, Hollister down their legs and Uggs on their feet, I was still letting my mom pick out clothes for me.
Everyone knows how that usually ends up: T-shirts emblazoned with “Daddy’s Girl” and butterflies in tacky shades of pink. At that point, the only thing I had going for me were my brains—which, let’s face it, only got attention when someone needed help during a group project.
I was alienated for two years, or at least until I switched off the regular public school course for middle school. Even at Math and Science Academy, a public charter school also in Woodbury, I clashed with a lot of popular students and, I’ll admit, had annoying tendencies.
Above all, I struggled with my self-image. My hair became less easy to manage. I had skin breakouts all the time. I thought I was fat. The smell of curry stuck to me no matter how hard I scrubbed. I still wore whatever my mom bought me. And, of course, I was still annoying-—my loud, high-pitched voice carried through the hallways with ease.
Except my close friends always contradicted me and said I was being too hard on myself. Everything negative I had to say was me being my own worst enemy. Just stop it, right?
Then they turned around and criticized themselves. But that’s stupid, I thought. All my friends are hilarious! They’re smart! They’re great people!
That’s when I caught it: Everyone is his or her own worst critic. No one spends as much time with you as—well, you — so you’re always going judge yourself the harshest.
Society makes it so that magazines tell girls that they need to be skinny and have an unattainably perfect face with clear skin. They need to be demure, funny, confident, sweet, smart—actually, maybe not so smart—all these things that cannot be combined into a single person. We know the “perfect” girl in the magazine doesn’t actually exist, yet we feel pressure to look like that.
Guys have pressures too. Men are supposed to be emotionless, strong-willed, protective, intelligent, outdoorsy and physically buff. It doesn’t help that both genders start feeling contradictory pressures from elementary school on.
Last summer, I had to do something with my time. Colleges don’t want teenagers who sit around and watch TV for hours on end. I had no passion for the engineering camp my parents were pushing me towards. Instead, I preferred writing.
That’s how I ended up applying for a journalism camp. All ten of us were from different parts of Minnesota, representative of different cultures. Nobody even listened to remotely the same music as the next person. But the first three days cleared and all of us became good friends.
I felt appreciated and wanted that feeling to spread to everything else I did. I didn’t want to feel like I did before. There’s nothing to romanticize about depression or self-hatred.
Because I’m young, it feels like everything that goes wrong is the end of the world. But I realize that one day all my current problems will seem trivial.
I worked hard to change the way I react to self-criticism. But it took weeks to sink in, and I still don’t entirely believe it. Sometimes I look in the mirror and think, “Oh god, my nose is huge.” But then I immediately dash that thought.
“I don’t care,” I tell myself. “Never mind my nose. No one’s paying attention to that, anyway.”
I can still look back at something I said an hour ago and deeply regret saying it. Then I realize, eh, in a few years the only person who’s going to remember I said that will be me.
And most likely, unless it was something amazing, even I’ll probably forget.